We hear it all the time. “The NFL is a business.” Let’s not overlook the fact that it is a weird business.
When the San Francisco 49ers signed Jimmy Garoppolo to a $137.5 million contract, they made him the highest-paid player in NFL history despite just seven career starts. This is not an indictment of the 49ers for the deal because we know the realities of the league in 2018, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting that in this industry you can get paid more than your much more experienced and proven peers. Garoppolo is getting $42.6 million cash in 2018, which is $20 million more than any other quarterback. So far.
Garoppolo’s cap hit of $37 million is the biggest ever but San Francisco has nothing but cap space and it lowers his 2019 hit to $20 million, which should allow them flexibility to hit the market hard next year when they are much more likely to compete for a deep playoff run. That is of course if Garoppolo pays off, but that’s not really the focus of this article. Maybe Garoppolo is great, maybe he’s good, maybe he’s not. We’ll see. All we know now is that he’s inexperienced, which should be fascinating for fans of all 32 teams.
The only quarterback who seems likely to top Garoppolo’s annual average value is Kirk Cousins, who is set to become a free agent now that Washington has acquired Alex Smith. Cousins should be able to parlay his free agency at age 29 into a deal with the Browns or Jets that at least uses Garoppolo’s deal as a jumping off point. Of course, Cousins could also sign with a different team — the Vikings, Broncos, Bills, Cardinals may also ask for consideration — but with Cleveland or New York he’d more even more likely to set some new contract records. The Browns have an estimated $110 million in space per Overthecap.com, while the Jets are at $73 million.
Those teams could also frontload a deal for Cousins, challenging Garoppolo’s $37 million cap hit and $42.6 million in 2018 cash.
Garoppolo has two Super Bowl rings during his time with the New England Patriots, but again has only made seven starts (7-0) with zero playoff appearances. Cousins made his playoffs debut as a rookie in 2012 against the Seattle Seahawks (an ugly performance on an ugly field that just wiped out Robert Griffin III’s career), then returned three years later as the starter in a loss to the Green Bay Packers at home.
That puts Garoppolo and Cousins with a combined playoff record of 0-1.
The current second-highest paid quarterback for 2018 (just looking at next season’s current salaries) is Matthew Stafford, who has a cap hit of $26.5 million. Stafford is going into his 10th NFL season and has a career record of 60-65. He is quite famously unsuccessful against winning teams, especially on the road, though last season he did help the Lions beat the Vikings in Minnesota. His career record on the road against winning teams prior to 2017: 1-25. His career record against all winning teams prior to 2017: 5-48.
As PrideOfDetroit pointed out, the “QB Wins” stat is inherently flawed because football has so many other variables besides quarterback play, but historically fans and analysts have always used wins and championships as the weightiest factor when judging a QB. Undeniably, great teams have often had great quarterbacks, bad teams have often had bad quarterbacks, and it is very hard to have postseason success if you don’t have a quarterback who is able to step up to that challenge.
Stafford has to take on the greatest amount of responsibility for failing to win a playoff game in his first nine seasons, just as Tom Brady or Russell Wilson or Nick Foles get to take on some credit for their postseason wins. Stafford has made three playoff appearances (2011, 2014, and 2016) and Detroit has gone 0-3 in those games. Last August, with the same 0-3 record, the Lions gave Stafford a five-year, $135 million extension, $60.5 million guaranteed at signing.
The third-highest paid QB for 2018, before Cousins signs, is Derek Carr. At this point, few would support the Oakland Raiders’ decision to sign Carr to a five-year, $125 million extension last June, but even at the time many of us were scoffing at the agreement. Carr had a nice TD:INT ratio in the previous two seasons (60:19) and the Raiders finally returned to the postseason, but his Y/A was below mediocre (7.0) and he was playing behind the best pass blocking offensive line in football.
Oakland made the playoffs and went 12-3 with Carr in the regular season, but a broken leg forced him to miss the Raiders’ wild card loss to the Houston Texans. Carr makes $25 million in 2018, though his cap hit lowers in each of the next two seasons and he’s releasable by 2019. His Y/A dropped to 6.8 last year and there were surely fewer people in his corner by season’s end; at this point, it all just comes down to how the relationship between Carr and Jon Gruden forms and molds over the next 10 months, but Carr can rest easy knowing that he’s at least already been paid once.
Given the recent three-year, $66 million extension for Joe Flacco ($24.75 million cap hit in 2018) however, maybe Carr will continue to get paid anyway.
That makes the highest-paid QBs for 2018 then are:
Andrew Luck (DNP)
and then ... Russell Wilson ($23.7 million) who is 8-4 in the postseason.
We also need to see where free agent Drew Brees falls. It could be in the top five, or perhaps a little bit lower because of his age. There could also extensions for some QBs and unpredictable outcomes for Foles and Case Keenum.
Make whatever judgments you want about QB Wins and contracts and fairness — that’s not what I’m here to do for anyone else — I just find these situations to be fascinating and the Cousins deal should only further pound home that sometimes it’s not about what you’ve done, but what you’ve yet to do.